After this had lasted for some time he went to kneel at a nearby cross to give thanks to God, where again appeared that vision which he had often seen and which he had never understood, that is, the object described above, which he thought very beautiful and which seemed to have many eyes. But he noticed as it stood before the cross it did not have the beautiful color as heretofore, and he understood very clearly, with a strong assent of his will, that it was the evil one. Later it often appeared to him for a long time, but he drove it away with the pilgrim’s staff he held in his hand and a gesture of contempt.
We might wonder what Saint Ignatius is going on about here. How can what he is seeing be “the evil one”? After all, it hasn’t harmed him, has it? Ignatius doesn’t give us a lot of indication as to what caused him to come to the conclusion that this was the work of the evil one, except that it was not as attractive and beautifully colored as it was before. If, indeed, this evil spirit even exists, why would he waste his time conjuring up beautifully-colored visions? We might explain it away, considering that Saint Ignatius lived in medieval times and therefore was much more apt to see evil spirits lurking around every corner. But this might say less about Ignatius and more about our modern tendency not to believe in the evil one at all. We would do well to remember the insight oft-repeated in modern times. It appears in the French writer Baudelaire’s short story, The Generous Gambler in 1864: “Mes chers frères, n'oubliez jamais, quand vous entendrez vanter le progrès des lumières, que la plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu'il n'existe pas!,” which translates: "My dear brethren, do not ever forget, when you hear the progress of lights praised, that the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist!" A similar sentiment can be found in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, and in the 1995 film, The Usual Suspects, in which the character Verbal, in speaking of the existence of the legendary but unseen criminal Keyser Soze, echoes Baudelaire: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.” One of the presuppositions of Saint Ignatius’ vision of the spiritual life is that the devil does indeed exist, and that we must be careful to distinguish the work of God from the work of the devil in that life. This brief excerpt challenges us to recognize that the evil one is it at work in our lives, not so that we can become obsessed with seeking out the work of evil spirits, but so that we can better recognize the authentic work of God in our lives.
It also shows us how subtly the evil spirit can work against us. For it seems that where Ignatius sees the evil spirit is in a spirit of distraction. Ignatius told us previously that this vision he saw was quite beautiful and he liked to look at it. As such was the case, one could imagine that he could spend hours just gazing at this beauty, rather than going about the business of his life and ministry. We all know the power of distraction, whether it be the distractions of excessive partying, playing video games, the internet! Before we know it, we’ve wasted hours on less than admirable pursuits like getting the high score on minesweeper, or trying to finally win a game of solitaire! I’m not saying that this is necessarily the work of the evil spirit, but it can be, especially when such things lead to the more life-draining pursuit of addictions. Think Gollum’s obsession with his “Precious” in The Lord of the Rings, or the more subtle enticement of The Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, in which one is shown his or her heart’s desire. Pointing out that some have withered away spending all their time staring at a vision of their greatest desires, Dumbledore warns, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”